Thirty years after a sitcom starring a young rapper with no acting experience debuted on NBC, the cast of The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air returned to the Banks mansion for a hilarious, emotional, and raw HBO Max reunion special.
'OG Aunt Viv' Janet Hubert Hash It Out
"I just wanted to know one thing: Why? Why so far? You guys went so far. I lost so much. How do we heal?"
These are among the first words that Will Smith hears from Janet Hubert during their emotional reconciliation in the "Fresh Prince of Bel-Air" reunion special, premiered on HBO Max Wednesday.
“Words can kill,” She added. “I lost everything. Reputation. Everything.
Hubert points out that she was never "unprofessional" on set, only more reserved. It's hard to hear such a revelation and not think of the many ways in which this echoes the corporate mindset of bosses who tout the workplace and colleagues as "family" so as to ignore the fact that, for their employees, this is their livelihood; they deserve to be paid a living wage, to have lives outside of work, to just be human. Smith and his other co-stars talk a lot about how much they enjoyed their experience on Fresh Prince and how it didn't feel like they were doing a job so much as they were part of a tight-knit family. That's a heartwarming and admirable kind of environment to exist in, but it's rarely the reality for everyone. And it doesn't leave room for accepting that it's OK to treat your job like it's actually a job, too – especially if your mental health and well-being outside of work is suffering.
Hubert is candid and specific in how this mischaracterization of her attitude and work ethic tarnished her career, particularly as a dark-skinned woman: "Calling a black woman difficult in Hollywood is the kiss of death." The actress Mo'Nique, among many others, can certainly attest to this, having said she's been blackballed in the industry since refusing to campaign for Precious without the promise of additional pay. ("We got labeled as 'difficult' because I said one word, and that was: 'No,'" she told Steve Harvey last year.)
For Smith's part, he admits he was neither "sensitive" nor "perceptive" to Hubert's troubles during her pregnancy, and seems genuinely contrite for how he treated her. He also notes that at the time he was still very young and immature, and that now, having been married with kids of his own, he's grown to understand what she was up against at that time in her life.
But as Hubert gently but sternly notes, the damage was done, and while Will was able to move forward and achieve greater and greater success post-Fresh Prince, she's never had that chance. "You took all that away from me with your words. Words can kill." It's a harsh reminder of the power of perception, and how so many men are able to wield that power swiftly and devastatingly against women who don't bend to their will.
There's deep sadness to be felt in the profound loss, both for Hubert's career and for the later seasons of Fresh Prince. Her performance as Aunt Viv was groundbreaking in its depiction of a woman who looked like her possessing a range of emotions and attitudes on TV in that era. Hubert could easily glide between saucy and elegant and righteous, often in a single scene.
As unsettling as the circumstances of this conversation are, its existence here is also refreshing. For all of the enduring popularity of Fresh Prince and the general goodwill Smith has managed to maintain in the decades since becoming one of Hollywood's biggest movie stars, Hubert's departure has long loomed over the show's legacy. To address it so directly is a smart P.R. move on Smith's part – if there's any actor working today who exudes the need to please crowds and be liked by everyone, it's him – but it also feels like exactly what Hubert needed in order to provide closure.
And while they may never share the same strong ties as Smith has with the rest of his co-stars, she at least she seems at peace. For those few moments, funnily enough, the special feels like an actual family reunion with real stakes, as the estranged relatives awkwardly and uncomfortably confront one another, let it all out, and, finally and cathartically, reach reconciliation.